Welcome to La Liga Hangover, a weekly column running throughout the season in which we take a look at the key stories and talking points from Spanish football's top flight's most recent weekend of action. With a focus on the biggest teams, such as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and a worthwhile nod toward the rest, we take a look at how the league is shaping up each week and what to look out for going forward.
After a summer of expenditure on positive, offensive players and some reasonable press "back home" for manager David Moyes, Real Sociedad must have been hoping for a good start to the season—and with their first-choice XI, it wouldn't be tough to see why.
Geronimo Rulli secured for another year, Diego Reyes shipped in to partner Inigo Martinez, Asier Illarramendi brought home and Jonathas, so impressive at Elche, signed to lead the line: 2015-16 looked like a big opportunity for La Real to re-establish themselves in the top half.
Unfortunately, it has only started with Moyes looking more lost than ever: a futile half-beard looks about as potent as the strike force he is failing to utilise to its potential, and the fall-back position of calling on Esteban Granero is never going to work. Never. Not even screaming "Irramendi" into the Anoeta night air could help him after his side went down to 10 men against Espanyol.
Lauded for achievements at Everton such as finishing sixth, despite never winning at Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge or the Emirates Stadium, Moyes found the going harder at a bigger club with elite-level expectations, and his time in charge of Manchester United didn't last long. An escape to La Liga was supposed to be a rebuilding process, restocking his reputation and tactical repertoire by dragging Real Sociedad away from the drop zone and taking on some of the finest minds in the game in the process.
A 1-0 win over Barcelona helped both aspects last season—but that, despite international and British press reports to the contrary, was a rare island of optimism surrounded by a sea of mediocrity and worry.
Either side of that Barcelona result: one win in five and one win in six.
La Real garnered enough points to not worry about relegation, but beyond that, there wasn't much to shout about. And linking the two seasons together, Moyes' current run reads two league wins in 14.
At least the weekend brought the side's first two goals of the season, but they still lost, 3-2, at home to Espanyol after playing the second half with 10 men. Two 0-0 draws are all the points Moyes' side has mustered this term, leaving Real Sociedad as one of five teams essentially in last-place in the early stages of the season.
3-2 FT. Real Sociedad still without a win. Lots of pressure on Moyes.— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) September 19, 2015
Star players aren't helping. Centre-back Martinez is injured, Carlos Vela looks about as trim and interested in proceedings as your stereotypical darts player at a flower show and Jonathas' only celebration for his maiden goal for the club was to gesticulate, dismissively and obviously annoyed, in Moyes' direction.
The Scot might still have time to turn things around at the club, but he needs wins fast and a style of play that gets the best out of a talented forward line. Sergio Canales was ignored up until Saturday yet was just about his team's best player while it was 11 against 11.
Right now, the only things the manager has to be thankful for is that Unai Emery and Nuno are taking the heat for him at Sevilla and Valencia respectively.
Jornada 4 Results
Getafe 1-0 Malaga
Real Madrid 1-0 Granada
Valencia 0-0 Real Betis
Eibar 0-2 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-3 Espanyol
Sevilla 1-2 Celta Vigo
Deportivo La Coruna 2-3 Sporting Gijon
Villarreal 3-1 Athletic Club
Las Palmas 0-1 Rayo Vallecano
Barcelona 4-1 Levante
One of the best things about being manager of a top club is, more often than not, you have a deeper pool of talent to work with. There is more competition for places, more money to spend on those who are simply there to beef up the squad rather than be in the first XI and much more scope to mix things up when European football kicks off and your team plays Tuesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Sunday for what seems an eternity.
Of course, if your name is Carlo Ancelotti, you also get to ignore the above and just field the same XI regardless.
With not an Italian manager in sight at the top three this year, however, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona all opted to change things around somewhat for their respective Liga games, as they all played extremely modest opposition. With varying degrees of comfort, Granada, Eibar and Levante respectively were all dispatched, as "Misters" Benitez, Simeone and Luis Enrique swapped star names for younger or newer faces.
Of those, some performed decidedly better than others. Lucas Vazquez enjoyed what will likely be a rare 90-minute run-out for Real, while Denis Cheryshev made a late (and belated) Liga debut off the bench. At 24 years of age, he's not exactly "one for the future," but Cheryshev could have a significant impact for Madrid over the course of the season as a fast-paced back-up.
On the other hand, Luciano Vietto will have far better days. He was short of fitness, lacked a first touch and had little sign of understanding with his new Atletico team-mates. An atrocious first half saw him subbed at the break, along with Jackson Martinez. Atletico Madrid's subs had the big impact—Angel Correa scored one and set up the other, Fernando Torres doing likewise, with Oliver Torres once more an influential figure when he entered the game.
As for Barcelona, the manager must have been getting close to pulling the trigger before the opening goal went in; 0-0 at the break and with Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto all on the bench, Sandro Ramirez and Munir El Haddadi would have been the likeliest players to get the hook before three goals in 10 second-half minutes ended Barca's game as a contest. Both forwards enjoyed a 90-minute performance as a result.
Goal of the Weekend
Mario Gaspar, Villarreal right-back. Take a bow.
Luis Alberto goal for Depor vs Sporting. https://t.co/ExBCdDu8x7— Karl Matchett (@karlmatchett) September 21, 2015
Points of Authority
- Dani Carvajal showed against Granada why he is the better footballer compared to new Real signing (and first-choice right-back) Danilo. He also showed why he isn't the preferred pick in the position. For Rafa Benitez, a team has never been about the best XI but about the best option for each role. Danilo's lung-busting runs, his drives into space down the flank and his aggression are perfect to occupy the area down that flank left vacant by Isco or James Rodriguez's drifting. Carvajal, for all his technical ability, remains too passive at times to exploit it the same way.
- Atletico Madrid's Three Towers—Oliver, Fernando and Juanfran. All three players, surname of Torres, have started the season in good form and are such important parts of how the team will progress this season. Even if the striker doesn't start every match, his impact at Eibar showed how well integrated he is in the style of play and how his team-mates utilise his remaining traits.
- Geronimo Rulli earned plaudits aplenty last season for a series of excellent saves in goal for Real Sociedad, but his performance against Espanyol showed his limitations. He's a tremendous shot-stopper but not an all-round goalkeeper. Distribution, coming off his line and playing within his entire penalty area are serious downsides to his game right now.
- Villarreal's striker depth is pretty darn impressive. They sold Ike Uche, Luciano Vietto, Gerard Moreno and Gio dos Santos for various reasons this summer—but replacing them with Roberto Soldado, Cedric Bakambu, Adrian Lopez and Leo Baptistao doesn't look like shoddy business at all. Three of them have already got on the scoresheet this season, and they provide quite a variety of styles between them.
- A few weeks back, near the start of the season, we noted that 4-4-2 was an increasingly frequent go-to system for La Liga managers. Since then, we have been keeping an eye on those using it and how often. And it's fair to say, much of Spain's top flight at least incorporate it in their plans this year. Both Atleti and Real Madrid used it in part this weekend, alongside other systems, while Espanyol went 4-4-2 to press their man advantage at La Real. Other gameweeks have seen a number of teams play the formation throughout the 90 minutes, eschewing a traditional No. 10 to instead favour a strike partnership in which one forward looks to drop into space during build-up play.
- A fantastic example of a coach killing his team's offensive threat was shown by Granada on Saturday. They were causing problems aplenty for Real Madrid down their right side, with Isaac Success racing in behind Marcelo with alarming frequency. The winger's final ball or touch consistently let him down, though, and he was eventually subbed by manager Jose Ramon Sandoval—for Robert Ibanez, a technical and creative but slow and drifting infield-style player. Thievy Bifouma—lightning quick, unpredictable and direct—was also on the bench but sat ignored and unused. Without that outlet for the team, Granada's attacking threat died immediately. They didn't create a single notable chance on the counter for the remainder of the match.
- Real Betis' quest to incorporate their top names over the coming weeks will be interesting. They have largely fielded a 4-4-2 this season, with wide players coming infield to affect play—but Joaquin's arrival ends that on the right flank. They opted for a destroyer-playmaker midfield partnership—Alfred N'Diaye and Dani Ceballos— against Valencia but will soon also have Rafael van der Vaart to slot in somewhere. Xavi Torres, who has been reasonable so far this season and was a staple of the team last term, made way on Saturday.
Good Week, Bad Week
Keylor Navas and Raphael Varane were superb defensively for Real Madrid. The attackers naturally take a lot of the attention in one of the world's biggest teams, but those two were impervious at the back. Varane covered for Marcelo's deficiencies no end of times, while Navas extended himself greatly to record a fifth straight clean sheet and help his team win.
Espanyol deserve credit for taking the late win at Real Sociedad, even if they should have wrapped it up beforehand. A man to the good and 2-1 up, they could have crumpled and deflated after conceding an equaliser—but went straight up the other end to score the winner. Hernan Perez, the scorer, was largely tremendous throughout the second half.
Gabi is somewhat overlooked these days, with Tiago performing exceptionally in Atletico Madrid's midfield and Koke being the star name and youngest of the trio, but it is the captain who has started the season in best form out of them all. He was instrumental in Atleti's control of the match against Eibar and effective in both halves of the pitch.
Nahuel Leiva, Villarreal's right-winger, continues to impress. He's fast, skilful and likes to stay wide to operate in space but has more than enough technique to shine when he dips infield too. He's regularly subbed around the 60- to 70-minute mark, but that he is even in the XI as a first pick ahead of the likes of Denis Suarez, Samuel and Jon dos Santos shows his level of ability. He's only 18—expect to see and read a lot more about this kid as the season goes on.
Malaga haven't yet scored a goal this season. Their 360 minutes of game time has yielded an average of just over three shots on target per game, per WhoScored.com, and to be quite frank, it's not a huge surprise their attacking play has suffered this term. The sales of Sergi Darder, Samuel and Samu Castillejo haven't been offset by particularly inspirational additions, and this functional, straight-lines team needs an alteration quickly.
Sevilla's awful start to the season continued apace on Sunday—they were two goals down at home within 25 minutes of kick-off. A 2-1 loss to Celta Vigo leaves Unai Emery's team bottom of La Liga just a few months after winning the Europa League and signing the likes of Yevhen Konoplyanka, Michael Krohn-Dehli and Fernando Llorente—all left on the bench again.
Again we note: Athletic Bilbao's squad isn't good enough to rotate. The first XI is strong, but the likes of Kike Sola, Sabin Merino and Javi Eraso, all of whom started Sunday's loss at Villarreal, are nowhere near good enough. Sandwiched between a Europa League match and Real Madrid on Wednesday, Athletic basically threw this fixture away with their selection.
This one goes out to all the fans at the Mestalla on Saturday. Valencia drew 0-0 with Real Betis, and the home fans called for manager Nuno to go, per Marca. Yes, that's Valencia who finished fourth last season under Nuno, beat Monaco in the Champions League qualifiers to reach the group stage and haven't lost in La Liga this season. Sure, results haven't been as perfect as they might have been, but with Sevilla performing terribly, it's not an issue right now. Sack Nuno already? Get in the bin.